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Splash & dash: this is how a Formula 1 pit stop works

2017-05-27 07:00

KEY TEAM PLAYERS: Formula 1 pitstop crews practice thousands of hours to narrow down their quick tyre changes during grand prix races. Image: AFP / Andrej Isakovic

Braam Peens

Cape Town - How long does do it take 20 men to change four tyres in F1? Try 2 seconds. In the absence of refuelling (which allows a greater-sized window for the creative use of strategy), and overtaking being as difficult as it has become of late, the pit lane has become as much part of the battlefield as the racetrack itself.

Teams are constantly searching for ways to reduce time spent in the pits. And for good reason, too: with millions of dollars in prize money available for points-finishes, a well-executed pit-stop means the difference between emerging ahead or behind your main competitor as you rejoin the track from the pitlane, as well as has affecting the development budget for the next year’s car, or even a driver’s own salary.

It’s also far easier to gain a few tenths through a lightning tyre-stop than to earn them by grinding lap after lap on track. Of, course the opposite also rings true.

So how fast is fast? At the 2016 European grand prix the Williams-Mercedes changed all four tyres on Felipe Massa’s car in just 1.98 seconds – the fastest ever. 

There are up to 20 “I’s” involved in a pitstop, but none of them in the word “teamwork”.

1. The lollipop man (1): receives and guides the incoming car into position by standing directly in front of its intended service bay (yes, they do get run over), holding a sign with instructions for the driver of what next to do, such as to keep his foot on the brake pedal so that the wheel guns can engage the nuts, and afterwards, when to select first gear.

This function has been gradually reduced through technology through the introduction of a traffic light system mounted on the gantry ahead the driver. The lights remain red while he’s stationary and go green when all four new tyres are fitted and the car has been dropped back on the ground. 

2. Trolley jack operators (2): one mechanic lifts the car at the front and one at the back. The tyres can’t be changed until the car is off the ground.

3. Tyre changers (12): there are three mechanics per wheel. One operates the wheel gun (he usually has two – the second is a backup), the second operator removes the old tyre and a third fits the new tyre.

4. Stabilisers (2): a mechanic on either side holds the car to stop it from rocking while the car is sitting on the jacks.

5. Front wing adjusters (2): not always required, but there are two mechanics stand by to make changes to the wing angle or replace the entire nose cone assembly on which the front wing is mounted if the driver wants to change the car’s balance (more or less understeer).

6. Fire extinguisher (1): with no more refuelling in the pit lane, the risk of fire has been significantly reduced, but one mechanic is ready with a fire extinguisher for any eventualities.

7. Emergency starter (1): F1 cars do not have an onboard starter and are instead fired up by an external motor, held by a mechanic already in position where he can engage it in as little time as possible. The best drivers never stall. 

Do things ever go wrong? Yes, and the results are almost always catastrophic, from chunks of time lost to cars being engulfed in flames and instantly retiring (see Jos Verstappen’s pit stop, Hockenheim 1994). Tyre stops are practised over thousands of times throughout the year – even in the off-season at the factory. 

Sometimes, however, it’s not the team’s fault. One of the most common errors made is when incoming drivers overshoot their pit boxes. By stopping just 20-30 centimetres past the intended spot and forcing the team to reset their positions costs a whole 0.6 seconds.

And, after changing from McLaren to Mercedes in 2013, at the Malaysian grand prix Lewis Hamilton even pulled into his old team’s pit box, before being waved off to his new one! Bet he didn’t Snapchat that one.

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